Tying the Knot in Maryland
Raise a glass to toast marriage equality. As of midnight, Jan. 1, same-sex couples in Maryland could legally marry, following a decades-long effort to secure the right.
Ten months after Gov. Martin O'Malley (D) signed the Civil Marriage Protection Act into law, same-sex couples are now able to marry, file their state taxes jointly and place each other on their health care plans - just some of the many other rights and responsibilities extended to married couples whose marriages are recognized by the state.
Despite an intense and closely fought campaign that saw the Civil Marriage Protection Act face a referendum on the 2012 ballot, supporters of marriage equality were ultimately successful in seeing the law upheld by a 52-48 margin.
Although Maryland's Attorney General, Doug Gansler (D), had opined that same-sex couples could begin obtaining marriage licenses in December, those licenses did not go into effect until Jan. 1.
Eric Wolvovsky, of Silver Spring, and his husband obtained their marriage license in December and opted for a small ceremony, limited to family and close friends, in their living room Tuesday, Jan. 1. Wolvovsky said that for all the alleged controversy over allowing same-sex couples to marry, obtaining the license - even in December - was one of the easiest parts of getting married. What was harder, he said, was finding someone to preside over the ceremony.
The biggest change for Wolvovsky and his husband will be the ability to file their state taxes jointly. But the federal-level benefits of marriage are still denied same-sex couples - such as immigration rights and various tax laws - because of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA). A case challenging the constitutionality of DOMA will be heard by the U.S. Supreme Court in March.
Ryan Wilson, the executive director of South Carolina Equality and a Maryland native, echoed Wolvovsky's sentiments on the status of federal recognition of same-sex relationships, pointing out that he and his new husband, Shehan Welihindha, will only receive such recognition if DOMA is repealed or overturned. Wilson and Welihindha were among seven same-sex couples who were married at Baltimore City Hall at 12:01 a.m., Jan. 1, becoming one of the first same-sex couples to legally wed in the Free State.
Even though South Carolina's Constitution bans any recognition of same-sex relationships, including domestic-partner benefits, Wilson and Welihindha said they began talking about marrying in Maryland as soon as O'Malley signed the Civil Marriage Protection Act into law. From far away, they watched the twists and turns of the marriage equality fight.
''As we were watching and celebrating the election results for the presidential race, we were also checking the Baltimore Sun website and refreshing it to see whether marriage equality had passed,'' Wilson recalled. ''New Year's Eve has always been special for us, so we decided to get married just after midnight.''
The couple will host a reception for family and friends in South Carolina later in the year.
More concerning for the newlyweds is how the federal government recognizes their relationship, particularly because Wilson is unable to sponsor Welihindha, a citizen of Sri Lanka, for a green card as his spouse. As a result, Welihindha, currently on a student visa as he pursues his Ph.D. at the University of South Carolina, and Wilson are facing a deadline roughly three years away that could force Welihindha out of the country, regardless of their Maryland marriage license.
Welihindha said he can apply for one-year temporary work status as he seeks to practice in his field once his student visa expires. After such an extension, he might also apply for a work visa for an additional three-to-six years before having to return to Sri Lanka. Neither of those options is guaranteed, Welihindha added.
''It's not as concerning or pressing right now,'' he said. ''But as we get closer to that day, it's going to become more of an issue.''
The two are especially interested in the fate of the Uniting American Families Act (UAFA), which would allow people in same-sex relationships to sponsor their foreign-born partners who are seeking to immigrate to the United States. The act, which has been sponsored by U.S. Rep. Jerold Nadler (D-N.Y.) and Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) in various forms since the 106th Congress in 2000, has died in committee in every subsequent Congress. It has very little support from Republicans, and will likely not receive a vote as long as the GOP controls either chamber.
But despite lingering concerns and questions over federal recognition, many Maryland same-sex couples are eagerly running down the aisle. They're receiving plenty of support from their chief allies, particularly organized labor, which was a major part of the Marylanders for Marriage Equality coalition that successfully lobbied for the passage of marriage equality at the legislative level and at the ballot box. One of the local union chapters of the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) International Union was planning to celebrate same-sex marriages at the Rockville Courthouse on Jan. 2, after Metro Weekly deadline. The union's president, Joe Hansen, has been a vocal supporter of LGBT rights and marriage equality.
According to lead organizer Jay Pascucci, a member of UFCW's strategic resources department, several members of the union are planning a ''show of support'' outside of the courthouse for several couples who are getting married Jan. 2, even though the union members don't personally know the spouses.
''We just felt we wanted to show them we support them,'' Pascucci said. ''I told the others to bring some poster board, and I'd supply the markers to make signs. We're going to be dressed in wedding wear. This support absolutely carries over to the rank-and-file members.''
But Pascucci has another reason to celebrate the passage of marriage equality: On Feb. 10, he and his partner of 15 years, David Robinson, will be married in Silver Spring.